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Thursday, October 9, 2014

Interview: Pixel Worm: The Quest of a Daughter, the Glow of a Heroine

Interview by Jedediah H.

The future is overloaded with possibilities. Because we tend to overestimate ourselves, when we lay belly-down on our sofas after a morning of spontaneous, mountainous trail climbing and boulder tossing, and visualise the landscape of our coming years, our predictions can be pretty, maybe even unrealistically, optimistic.

If you’re a woman, maybe you see a world independent of fossil fuels, where a good education is free, citizens respect one another as well as their environment, and your boyfriend or husband is a fawning farm boy who expresses his love with fierce eyes and verbal misdirection; if you’re a man and anything like me, then you see (or hope for) economic stability, explosive hair gel, and mechanised panthers as the new domesticated house pet.

For the purposes of entertainment on the recreational end and cultural introspection on the academic, some poets, authors, artists, film-makers, and game creators offer visually fantastical but ethically grounded versions of a future that’s representational of modern trends. In Pixel Worm’s upcoming indie title EMILY, the developer takes today’s matter of systemic corporate greed, profit over the safety and civil liberties of the people, imagines what that continued corruption will lead to, and places it in the foreground of their world’s setting.  The game’s heroine, EMILY, a by-product of corporate short-sightedness meddling with scientific progress, literally glows with hope and altered humanity as she searches for her father in a brutal foretelling of current day profiteering.

Wearing my sunglasses at night (and in the house, even) I was honoured to chat with Pixel Worm about this topic and many others as they relate to the progress of their flagship project, EMILY.

Pixel Worm: From left to right - Mike Oviedo, Javier Busto, and Joshua Meeds

Digitally Downloaded (DD): EMILY has been in development (including pre-production) for almost three months, which means that components such as gameplay, music, and environmental layout are, though in their basic forms, fairly accurate representations of Pixel Worm’s vision. What are your priorities from now until the end of the year to polish that vision and ensure its integrity?
Pixel Worm (PW): We’ve have the basic gameplay and system elements in place, an overall idea of what the story is, and a full level we can use to test power-ups and enemy concepts and make sure they all work and are fun to interact with. From the prototype test level, we learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t, what’s fun and what’s just plain frustrating, and we’ve also had some great feedback from people we’ve let play the prototype. So our next step is to use that knowledge to both improve some of the existing elements (like speeding up the hook-shot power-up) and start filling in and implementing the designs for the actual world map. In addition, there’s a bit of polish that still needs to be added to the game’s art – for example, we want the main character Emily to glow, and the backgrounds are designed to have more parallax scrolling in the larger indoor rooms.

DD: In five somewhat hyperbolic words, can you describe what it’s like to be a part of the Pixel Worm team?
PW: Being part of the Pixel Worm team is an adventurous, risky, exciting unification of talented individuals who’ve set out to bring ideas to life through challenging, engaging, and intuitive games.



DD: EMILY has a tentative release date of Fall 2015 for PC, with potential for arriving on other platforms in the future. What platforms are you considering for your flagship title?
PW: We are developing EMILY using the Unity game engine, and this allows us to easily target multiple platforms. We are currently using both Windows PCs and Macs to develop the game, so it already works on those and will definitely launch on them. Our next priority is Linux and Steam Machines, and in the future we would love to get EMILY on consoles and maybe even the 3DS, but that takes a lot more development time and costs, so we can’t really promise anything beyond Windows and Mac at this point.

We are staying away from mobile platforms because we believe a mobile game should be designed specifically for mobile play – otherwise you end up with really compromised virtual game controls, and then have to adjust the game balance and speed to allow for the worse reactions of those controls and parts of the screen covered up by the players’ fingers. Not to mention, we’ve all just come off of working on mobile games, and it feels very nice to not have to worry about the limitations those platforms have.

DD: EMILY is said to pay homage to the classics while delivering an innovative experience. Presumably, Metroid, Castlevania, and Mega Man are huge influencers of EMILY’s 2D aesthetic, side-scrolling mechanics, and the arm-mounted synth-blaster she so confidently touts. But what games and which components of said games in your mind are most relevant for shaping EMILY’s design, and how are you looking to innovate from the design of the classics you are paying respect to?
PW: We’ve definitely been influenced by those three games (and many more) along the development process; we’re taking inspiration from some of their most iconic mechanics and building upon them. We’ve taken Metroid’s open exploration element to allow players the ability to explore the different levels as they please, we do not want to constrain them to a linear game-play experience, so they’ll be able to choose their own path and have a unique play through which will be dictated by the choices they make.

Mega Man’s mechanics have also impacted our design, for example, the blaster has always been a very fun element to have in the game, and we’ve experimented with different ways to make more use of it, not only using it as a weapon but also as a tool that will allow players the opportunity to interact with the environments in very unique ways. One of the earliest examples of this is the hook-shot upgrade, which will allow players to climb up walls, grab items that are out of reach and even pull and/or throw enemies to prevent distant attacks.

Our goal is to allow players to synthesize different weapons onto Emily’s mechanised body directly impacting their experience. Our take on this is similar to how an RPG would work, where players will have an experience point ecosystem which will allow them to allocate points gained in battles and secret areas towards new upgrades and weapon crafting. 

DD: Judging from the story synopsis, EMILY seems to be about much more than a quest for a girl to reclaim her memories and find her father. On a planet afflicted with overpopulation, LibertyCorp has halted research on a cure for a virus that’s wiping out millions. A system of healthcare is available but only for the elite. And a researcher, EMILY’s father, discovers a possible cure for the outbreak.  Then he disappears. It looks as though you may be tackling current universal issues such as class inequality and the privatisation of healthcare. With my conjecture lingering in the open, will the story attempt to address issues such as these?  And what is the narrative’s primary theme?
PW: Absolutely. Even though our story is set in the future, we believe it is a scenario that could become a reality for future generations. Liberty Corporation is meant to be a self-indulgent government that only cares about its own agenda; the world’s resources have been almost depleted and the general population has been left behind, as they no longer serve a purpose for the ruling class. Humans are now controlled by a robot army, which won’t allow them to fight back or access basic human rights, along the way you will meet certain characters that will help you out by hacking into the system and weakening control stations in order to facilitate Emily’s quest to reach L.C.’s headquarters. We really want to explore and question the current use of technological advancements and how people should see the latter as tools to empower communities, not subdue them. Having said this, our game’s ending will certainly be unexpected.



DD: You’ve worked with publishers and major studios in the past, and some of the reasons your team has, excuse the term, 'gone indie' is to receive feedback and exchange ideas freely with gamers, to not be rushed by unrealistic deadlines, and to have the freedom to make a game that you actually want to play. According to your experience (or developer intuition), are there any aspects of EMILY that you’re certain a major studio or publisher would be uncomfortable taking a chance with?
PW: These days games with 2D art are pretty rare for publishers to back outside of mobile gaming and the occasional puzzle game, especially if it’s not paired with a popular trend such as retro-style pixel art. 3D models allow them to show off the power of the game consoles and their pure technical skills, it can sometimes be easier and cheaper to animate a 3D model than create 2D artwork, and there’s a common belief among publishers that if it’s 2D it just won’t sell on PC/consoles. It still occasionally happens, like with the Rayman games, but it’s definitely not something most publishers would do. In addition, we’re experimenting with a mix of cartoony characters on realistic background illustrations mixed with old school parallax scrolling, so the visual look of the game is really not something the average publisher would go for.

DD: Classic games, the ones I’m assuming to have influenced EMILY, are more or less renowned for difficulty or environmental complexity. For example, the Mega Man series has bosses who, to a player who is ignorant of their respective weaknesses, can make a gamer curse the day the game was imagined, while the Castlevania titles, specifically Symphony of the Night, have environments that can take weeks to fully explore. So for EMILY, what’s the level of difficulty and environmental scope that you’re hoping to achieve?
PW: As we move forward in the development process we’ll continue to tweak the game’s difficulty. We definitely want to end up with a game that is challenging but fun, similar to a classic game that encourages players to keep trying and rewarding them as they succeed. We do not want to make a game that feels like it’s being spoon-fed to the player; we all grew up playing classics and that’s exactly what we are aiming for. Boss battles will definitely be something to look forward to, as well as environment-driven challenges iconic of plat-former games.

DD: It’s unfortunate that in this industry, potential publishers are unwilling to take a chance on female protagonists simply because male leads purportedly sell better. But because they’re so seemingly rare, the question ‘Why did you choose to go with a female protagonist?’ is one that is understandable but, really, should be unnecessary at this point. This leads me to ask: Because of this androcentric rule that big publishers seem to adhere to, have you felt any pressure or praise from the gaming community for telling the story of a young woman who, instead of playing the victim, is out to rescue her father?
PW: Choosing a female was a process that came across quite naturally. There was no strategy, nor consideration of trends behind this. We felt that we wanted to portray the concept of a young character having to overcome huge obstacles in search for rescuing their only remaining family member. So we thought the main character should be a young teen, and along with that came the notion of a father and daughter dynamic. However, we wanted Emily to have a certain look that was contrary to a victim or damsel in distress. Throughout the game you will see her mature and evolve. The reception from the general public has been actually quite positive towards our protagonist, Emily, and we’re confident that players will see her as a strong-willed character whom they enjoy playing as.



DD: It’s probably too soon to ask since at this stage of development EMILY is the primary project on your mind, but what are Pixel Worm’s plans after EMILY’s release? If successful, could the story support a sequel?
PW: Pixel Worm strives to evolve with every project. The production of Emily was a learning experience, especially stemming from the circumstances that brought us all together in the first place. The thought of a sequel is always something that will be considered, but we prefer to take what we’ve learned throughout the development process and apply that level of excitement and new-found knowledge to new game titles.  

DD: What games are you and the crew currently playing? (My brittle ego has been begging for a challenge, so I think I’m going to get back into something Ninja Gaiden related.  If I throw a shuriken into the clouds out of frustration, please don’t judge me.)
PW: Some of the titles we’ve been playing are: Pinball Arcade, Final Fantasy XIV, Mario Kart 8, Super Time Force, Guacamelee!, Titanfall, Marvel vs Capcom. We routinely play Mario Kart tournaments on our 3DS’!


Pre-Alpha footage. Check out that wall-huggin' hook-shot!

 
-Jedediah H.
News Editor
Verbally misdirect me at: jedh@digitallydownloaded.net
Watch me be slain by the Minotaur at: twitch.tv/the_major1219   
Interview: Pixel Worm: The Quest of a Daughter, the Glow of a Heroine
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